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Posted by on Aug 18, 2012 in secularism | 9 comments

Is religion the death of funny?

Poe's law disclosure: this is satire

Poe’s law disclosure: this is satire

God ain’t funny. Neither are his fans. This is a tad on the peculiar side, isn’t it? Almighty creator of the cosmos, the alpha and omega, perfect in all ways, but can’t get a giggle. There are no puns in the Bible, no limericks in the Qur’an.  There are no knock-knock jokes in the Bhagavad Gītā’s 700 verses, even though doors are at least as old.

God might have made for some ironic humor, of course. When Old Testament (OT) God tells Abraham to kill his son, you know, as a sign of good faith, it’s hard not to imagine God snickering a bit when he stops the murderously devout Abe just short of making Isaac-kabobs: Haw! you should see the look on your face, it’s priceless! You were totally going to incinerate your kid. Now hack off a bit of his penis. Seriously. No, look, this is my serious face. That dialog was lost, sadly, it would have made the OT a whole lot more fun and more coherent.

Made in His photoshopped image
The lack of humor is stark considering how human the God featured in most major religions is in almost all other ways. The Abrahamic God (the God of the Christians, Muslims, and Jews) is obsessed with sex, calls himself “jealousy” Gin Blossoms-style, doles out civic rules and laws, and appeals to senses of authority, justice, purity, and vengeance. Like so many a man, God eventually knocks a chick up then gets out of town, leaving her to raise his kid. Maryment is okay, but merriment is not. God is never fun. He doesn’t dance, sing, or do anything for joy, assuming he didn’t go genocidal for the laughs. Conversely, humans universally love a good joke, and that isn’t new. The first recorded joke is from 1900 BCE.  Why are humans and God so very different in this one way? Another problem is that religion is often said to have inspired creative people, but isn’t comedy a pure form of creativity?

I have no sense of humor. And I VOTE! Images stolen from the BestChurchofGod.org

I have no sense of humor. And I VOTE!
Images stolen from the BestChurchofGod.org

Let’s get re-arted in here
Christians often note that some of the greatest artistic and even scientific accomplishments were inspired by religion. There is much evidence to support the claim: The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, about 10,000 stunning middle ages to early modern paintings in the Louvre, and architectural wonders like the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Parthenon. But wait, there’s more! God also inspired some of the world’s best pre-guitar music such as Handel’s Messiah. Most classical music in general is said to be heavily influenced if not inspired by Christianity, except of course for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Insatiable Whores (later renamed to …Bumblebee). Religionists claim, too, scientists like Galileo and Isaac Newton. Like the contemporary geneticist Francis Collins, Galileo and Newton both explicitly stated they considered their work the investigation of God’s laws. Brilliant novelists like Fyodor Dostoevsky and John Updike also get their creative credits partially stolen by Christianity.

All of these points are debatable. Still, let us take the theist at their word, just for the sake of argument. God has inspired the creativity of composers, lyricists, singers, scientists, writers, and architects. That’s a pretty diverse group, united only along the creative axis. Humor is mere cleverness in written and spoken word. The first objection may be that God and religion are inherently serious matters, concerned with moral turpitude and the destination of souls. Why then, give humanity a sense of humor at all? Presumably either because we are “in His image” or because we’re supposed to laugh at times. Is humor like the other things God gave man while telling him never to use? For example, lust (impure thoughts about not-your-spouse), or reason (please hold your questions until the end of your life, thankyou).

The problem with this is that humor is content-agnostic. A joke’s hook or punchline can be anything. That means it can be pro-god and pro-religion or anti-atheism like this old canard: Q: What do you call an atheist at his funeral? A: All dressed up and no place to go. A joke can have a positive religious message and even be funny, when delivered by ranting, cursing comic nutjob Sam Kinison:

Jesus hasn’t bothered to come back yet that shouldn’t discourage us huh? What’s it been, 2000 years? Come on, let’s stay optimistic, what do you say? No I’m sure it couldn’t have anything to do with that fucking going away party we gave the guy huh? I’m sure that didn’t hurt his feelings at all. Shit, we’re going “Ohh you’re coming back soon eh Jesus? Want us to hold your room?” [mocks nailing someone to a cross with a hammer]. It’s true, come on we were so mean to the guy. Cause we haven’t changed. have we really changed? Jesus came back we’d crucify him again, except this time we’d use an air hammer. [mocks nailing someone to a cross with an air hammer]. […] ” They’re up there in heaven now going “Jesus, why don’t you go back to earth, make the world happy again and be a symbol of peace and love.” He’s going “Yeah…” [looking at hand] “Yeah… sure. No I’ll go back. Yeah I’ll go back as soon as I can play the fucking Piano again! Thanks a lot, I like being the only saviour who can use his hand as a fucking whistle. (video: SK on Jesus)

Or a religious joke can have no particular target:

A local priest and pastor stood by the side of the road holding up a sign that said, “The End is Near! Turn yourself around now before it’s too late!”
They planned to hold up the sign to each passing car.
“Leave us alone you religious nuts!” yelled the first driver as he sped by.
From around the curve they heard a big splash. “Do you think,” said one clergy to the other, “we should just put up a sign that says ‘bridge out’ instead?” source

If humor can be pro-God just as easily as not, why so little godly humor? If religion is so inspirational to creative people why are there so few religious comedians? These are two separate questions and I ask them both: why so little good religious humor and secondly why so few comics talented and devout who riff about any topic? I submit there are vanishingly few humorists counted as both devout and successful. The scope of the rift between the team God and hilarity is immense and needs a closer look.

Laughing with the Sinners

Flics

Sacri-larious

Sacri-larious

Almost all of the top-tier funny people, books, movies, TV shows, etc.., one can think of are not religious or are produced by the none-too-religious. Note, I don’t mean they are atheists. Some are. Some are probably deists, others likely hold some sort of belief in God, but almost none can be called pious. None here mentioned are averse to skewering religious pomp, as the devout would be. For these, religion is a token at best. A box checked on a survey. You know most of these people and products, but take a look at just how many there are, and how much of the comedy world they produce(d). Let’s start with stand-up and professional comedians.

Stand-up Guys

George Carlin   Jesus was a cross dresser.
Lenny Bruce    If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.
Bill Hicks   The whole image is that eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God’s infinite love. That’s the message we’re brought up with, isn’t it? Believe or die! Thank you, forgiving Lord, for all those options.
Tim Minchin   ♫And yes, I have all of the usual objections ♪ To consumerism, the commercialisation of an ancient religion ♫ To the westernisation of a dead Palestinian

Billy Connolly  [Video – Connolly on Religion]

Bill Maher   […] flying planes into a building was a faith-based initiative. I think religion is a neurological disorder.

Jon Stewart   Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart… by religion.
Sarah Silverman   [video – Sex with God]
Patton Oswalt   [video – Skycake]
Rodney Dangerfield (responding to Howard Stern re: life after death) We’re apes––do apes go anyplace?
Denis Leary   I can’t bring up my kids in a church whose authority system is entirely based on the size of fucking hats, okay? That’s apparently how the Catholic church is run.
Eddie Izzard   The Crusades were, “We kill you in the name of Jesus!” “Wait, we have Jesus, too! He’s a prophet in our religion!” “… Really? Look, we’ve come all this way. Would you mind awfully if we hacked you to bits? Just for the press back home.”
Kathy Griffin  Suck it, Jesus! This award is my God now! (said while accepting Emmy award)
Steven Wright   If god dropped acid would he see people?
Ricky Gervais   When confronted with anyone who holds my lack of religious faith in such contempt, I say, “It’s the way God made me.”
Andy Richter
Mitch Hedberg
Penn & Teller  […] anyone with a love for truth outside of herself has to start with no belief in God and then look for evidence -Penn Jillette on NPR
Emo Philips
Stephen Fry
Steve Martin
Richard Pryor The reason people use a crucifix against vampires is that vampires are allergic to bullshit.
David Cross
Dave Attell
Laura Kightlinger
Daniel Tosh 
Dylan Moran

Janeane Garofalo

Lisa Lampenelli
Lewis Black
Joe Rogan
Louis CK
Amy Sedaris   We were raised Greek Orthodox […] but I don’t practice it and I couldn’t tell you anything about the Greek religion itself.
David Sedaris

TV Land 
Seinfeld: Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld
Curb Your Enthusiasm: Larry David
Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show: Seth MacFarlane
House MD: Hugh Laurie
The Simpsons/Futurama: Matt Groening
South Park: Trey Parker & Matt Stone
Moral Orel: Dino Stamatopoulos
Wondershowzen
The Man Show, Loveline, Crank Yankers: Adam Carolla et al

This list is far from comprehensive, but even so, quite impressive for team godless. Then there’s this-

God’s mistakes: Awful religious failures
Jeff Dunham and Tyler Perry
I’m not trying to single out racism-based comedy (because it can be funny, see Sarah Silverman, Richard Pryor, Lewis Black, and Dave Chapelle), but both Dunham and Perry have made it their life’s work to cash in on racial humor. This is less forgivable for Dunham and his transparent xenophobia. I still might not care (as a comedy purist) if only they were funny.

Notable exceptions/indeterminates
Dave Chapelle, Muslim; Sacha Baron Cohen, Jew; Stephen Colbert, Catholic; Sam Kinison, Pentecostal preacher. Bill Cosby; Conan O’Brien, Catholic.
Admittedly, these guys mostly keep their religious views private (which perhaps is in itself curious- why all of them?). So, I do not know how religious they are. I only know they identify as such and appear to practice said faith. I include them in this post for balance. There are exceptions, but it seems, not many.

Bonfire of the Inanities
Fueling the great irony bonfire, atheists are often called joyless, angry and strident. How can the joyless people be largely responsible for, and responsive to, the lion’s share of the greatest comedians alive and in history? It isn’t just the professionals who are unchurched. The regular nonbelievers seem to possess a demographically superior sense of humor. All of this is in spite of the fact of getting the short end of the cultural stick of ages of oppression and marginalization. Atheists should be angry at the society that has excluded them from high office and moral regard, and they are. But they’re good humored, too. Here are the top 10 links at social news outlet Reddit.com‘s atheism subreddit (collected right now, as I write this):

/r/Atheism

What’s Funny? Damned… if you know.
Maybe not having dogma invites you to take everything, yourself included, less seriously. Maybe religion, with its desperate insecurity, its inviolable demand for unmerited reverence, has made itself into the ring leader of a flea circus. That is, comedy fuel nonpareil. Comedy often feeds on dignity, consumes it. The dignity of religion might be like the Wizard of Oz’s curtain; once it gets pulled back and everyone sees the man pulling the levers, they’re mighty reluctant to get on their knees again. Maybe my question gets the causality backward: good jokes might kill the reverence that is critical to sustaining religion, even without anyone realizing that is what has happened. Maybe people marginalized in a society use laughter as a coping mechanism, channeling their frustrations into jokes and laughter.

Maybe it’s all of those things. I don’t know. I do know God ain’t funny. The idea that there’s an ultrapowered spirit who can make galaxies but not giggles? Now that is funny

  • Jonathan MS Pearce

    Ed

    I’ve thought about this before and was going to do a post on the fact that there are no right wing comedians left in Britain, really (the only ones that are have an audience in the less educated circles, or old-school audiences, arguably). Most cutting edge, 18-34 aimed comedians are clearly and obviously and openly left wing. Which also means that, in the UK, a lot of comedians overtly, or implicitly, bash God and religion.

    I put it down to the left wing being more likely to be morally right. I mean this by point of fact that at the basis of left-leaning politics is the desire for fairness and parity. That’s hard to rip the shit out of. It is easier to rip into selfishness and bigotry which is often (though not necessarily) associated with the right wing. The conservative party, in the UK, when the butt of comedians’ jokes, has its worldview and often the personal adherents as the victim. The Labour party rarely has its politics poked fun at, more often the personalities of the adherents or other aspects. AS far as God is concerned, he is clearly not funny.

    I mean, he designed cancer, no?

  • Jonathan MS Pearce
    • Edward Clint

      Thanks JP. I tend to agree.

      In fact God can’t do much of anything humans value in each other, once you take seriously the common claims about His nature. It isn’t clear a purportedly omniscient God can think about anything. Thinking is a sort of information processing; a feature of some organisms that need to do things like solve basic problems (how do I get from point A to B through obstacles), suss out hidden information (can I infer that animal has bones based on its other characteristics?) and mull over novel problems. None of these, nor any conceivable human-like need for thinking, applies to an omniscient being.

      How can one pray to a being that is, by definition, incapable of thinking and thus incapable of responding in any sense in which “responding” is meaningful?

      • Jonathan MS Pearce

        There is a huge topic in that. In my book , The Little Book of Unholy Questions, I said this:


        With this section, I wanted to pose questions that sought to find out a little bit more about God. If this is the entity that I am directed to love with all my heart, I would really like to know him some more. I mean, I know my partner pretty well, and I love her and have had children with her. Yet I am supposed to devote my life to God in a loving union to the point of making sacrifices of time, effort, money, love, dedication and more, and I know almost nothing of the inner workings of God. I only have the bible, and the experience of others to guide me. I know my postman more. And I don’t love him. As for the bible, the book is some two thousand years old, and this begs the question as to why I should use it as a guidance as to who God is, and not any other holy book.”

  • Jonathan MS Pearce

    mate, if you didn’t see Izzard on the Secret Policemena’s Ball in the US this year, watch this, especially the God bit and Republican bit.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcBS9LLzsiM&feature=related

    “There is no God; he isn’t there. I thought that I should mention that to you, he doesn’t exist. We found this in Europe. We had a thing called the Second World War which you came and joined us on. We noticed he wasn’t there when we got up to about 50 million dead. because we thought he should have flicked Hitler’s head off at some point.”

  • http://www.skepticblogs.com/azatheist Ken

    Hi Ed,

    Great post! I’ve been watching Family Guy and American Dad for quite a while. Some of their funniest moments are their religious jokes. I found one my favorite Family Guy episodes about religion. Stan meets an atheist and tries to ruin his life to get him to commit to a belief in god.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFmz5hmgmCI

  • http://www.facebook.com/bluharmony bluharmony

    Great post. God can’t be omnipotent without a sense of humor; therefore, no god. Proof completed.

  • PJLandis

    Kinison talked about how he gave up his religion, not sure if he went full atheist, but he didn’t hide his religious history or affiliation in anyway. Neither does Colbert, who regularly uses his Catholicism as the premise for a joke or Bill Cosby who is just as public although he doesn’t make jokes about it.

    • Edward Clint

      Thanks PJLandis. I specifically looked for information on Kinison’s beliefs, but he kept pretty quiet. It makes you wonder what the relationship was between his transition from preacher to comic and adherent to nonadherent.